AFC, NFC championship picks

There’s a sharp contrast between the AFC and NFC Championship games, with the former featuring the league’s hallmark quarterbacks and the latter featuring the game’s up-and-coming stars.

It’s hard not to notice when considering the juxtaposition that will arise in the Super Bowl, whoever the contestants are. It’s also hard to ignore that given the talent of each team, and the rivalries between each opponent, Sunday’s conference championships are much harder to pick than usual. One could, with a simple coin flip, make an argument for either and have some pretty good numbers to back them up.

But when you look at the line, there’s a clear divide between the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. And that helps guide my conference championship picks.

49ers (-3) at the Seahawks (+3) — The Seattle Seahawks have won four of their last five games against the San Francisco 49ers at home, including this season’s matchup. In those five games, they’ve outscored the 49ers 139-58. Seattle is 16-1 at home in the past two seasons. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick not only has troubles at Seattle’s noisy CenturyLink Field, but every time he’s faced Seattle’s sterling No. 1 defense. He’s 2-2 against the Seahawks, completing 50.54 percent of his passes while throwing two touchdowns and five interceptions. Every time he sees these guys, he just doesn’t do well. The 49ers need him to play at his best, which I just don’t think is possible given the opponent and the location.
My pick: Seahawks

Patriots (+4) at the Broncos (-4) — After the Patriots stormed back to beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime in Week 12, helped in part by conservative play-calling in 22-degree weather and Rob Gronkowski (7 receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown), they’re facing a different climate and mindset in Denver going into Sunday’s game. Peyton Manning, who is 4-10 against Tom Brady, aggressively attacked the San Diego Chargers last week, throwing the ball down the stretch despite having the lead. That’s a huge change from what the Patriots previously saw and could affect the dynamics of the game should the Broncos procure another lead. But Denver has been notorious for allowing opponents an opportunity to steal the game away, much like they did for the Chargers, who had the Broncos stuck at 3rd and 17. The Patriots can certainly steal a win against the AFC’s No. 1 seed if Brady and the passing game gets going against a diminished Broncos secondary. The injury to Denver cornerback Chris Harris certainly opens things up. I expect it to go down to the final possession. Maybe even a field goal.
My pick: Patriots

Free kick threw everyone off

“After a fair catch is made … the receiving team has the option of putting the ball in play by either: (a) a fair-catch kick (drop kick or placekick without a tee) from the spot of the catch (or the succeeding spot after enforcement of any applicable penalties)” — Rule 10, Section 2, Article 4 of NFL rulebook.

Bad no-call sours Super Bowl loss for 49ers

The infamous play; Fourth and goal from the Ravens' 5-yard line. Michael Crabtree was held by Jimmy Smith, essentially ending the game on a non-call.
The infamous play; Fourth and goal from the Raven’ 5-yard line. Michael Crabtree was held by Jimmy Smith, essentially ending the game on a non-call.

I never would have thought we would be talking about a non-call in the Super Bowl again. At least not so soon.

But in a season that began with replacement referees and ended on 4th and 5 hold — and yes, it was a hold — one has to seriously be concerned with the state of officiating.

The San Francisco 49ers fanbase was sent into a tail spin after the impediment of Michael Crabtree’s possible game-winning touchdown went uncalled. It was one in a series of bad no-calls in Super Bowl XLVII.

There’s this whole thing about the genie in the bottle when it comes to losses after the fact, but there is also a cold, hard truth here: The 49ers didn’t deserve to win. The Baltimore Ravens, finishing on top 34-31, took the game from San Francisco in the first quarter and were on the verge of giving the ball game up before getting a little help. But make no mistake about it, the Ravens played for 60 minutes, something the 49ers failed to do. And when the game was on the line, and the comeback was in its full throes, the Ravens got one in a series of bad calls to go their way. It doesn’t make the call right, but it was equally distributed between the two teams.

Just plays earlier, 49ers left guard Mike Iupati had gotten away with a holding call. Tis the way of the world it seems.

In Super Bowl XLIII (2008 season), the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 with a little help from the officials, too. Here’s what I wrote up about the calls in that game:

Exhibit A – there was a clear and obvious block in the back on James Harrison’s length-of-the-field touchdown return. There’s seven points off the board.

Exhibit B – an awful roughing the passer call that gave the Steelers a first down and eventually led to a field goal. That would’ve been a bad call in a regular season game, but was truly terrible in the Super Bowl.

Exhibit C – same drive, roughing the field goal holder??? I’m not quite sure when that became a penalty. It sounds vaguely familiar, but that can’t be in keeping with the spirit of the rule, can it? He hardly roughed him up.

Exhibit D – the first Kurt Warner fumble that was overturned after a review. They got the call right, but it was so obvious that the Cardinals shouldn’t have had to waste a challenge on it.

Every one of those bother me, but I’m able to look past them. However, to not review a questionable fumble call, with seconds remaining in the game — the game being the freaking Super Bowl — is inexcusable. Initially I thought it was a fumble, and I understood the call. But the replay looked different. I thought the ball may have still been in his hand and that there was a real good chance that the call could be overturned. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised when they didn’t bother to look at it.

In Super Bowl XLVII, we’ll be talking about Jimmy Smith’s hold/non-hold on that 4th-and-goal, Chris Culliver’s pass interference, the no-call pass interference on Corey Graham on 2nd-and-goal with the ball game on the line, and the no-call offensive pass interference on Torrey Smith that could have resulted in a Culliver interception.

That’s a lot of plays to consider that are questionable. It’s magnified when more than 100 million people are watching. And outside of Baltimore, fans of the game continue to have their faith shaken that the league will not do the right thing when it comes to perceived injustices. The last thing the NFL wants to discuss is its poor officiating.

But when I awoke up this morning, after having digested the game and re-watched the pivotal highlights (again and again), I find myself equally disgusted with the 49ers’ lack of urgency in the first half. On 3rd and 15, their first offensive series, they elect to run a draw with Frank Gore for 3 yards. That was conservative play-calling at its worst. In the second quarter, facing a 3rd-and-10 at their own 6-yard line, the 49ers went back to gore for a 6-yard run. Again, conservative play-calling at its worst. No need to remind the Red and Gold that this is the Super Bowl. Mr. Hindsight is a great teacher.

Add in two pivotal turnovers by rookie running back LaMichael James and second-year QB Colin Kaepernick (his 10th start) and then throw in a special teams touchdown by the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones, a 108-yard kickoff return, and you have the recipe for a super loss already.

But even then, after coming back from a 28-6 deficit, the 49ers found themselves with a possible game-winning drive on their hands, 1st-and-goal at the Ravens’ 7-yard line. They proceed to give James the ball (he should’ve been benched), and throw three straight passes to Crabtree at the right pylons that made no sense whatsoever.

No read option. No quarterback scramble. No targets for Vernon Davis. No touches for Gore. No sense of balance in play-calling.

It was atrocious coaching, punctuated by a gut-wrenching fourth down play that had slim hope for success. There was no pickup on the blitz, no 49ers receiver working the middle of the field, and no separation for the target.

The non-call didn’t give the Ravens the victory. It was just the final dagger. It sours the loss, sure, but it was the Ravens’ game to lose. No reason to be mad because they got help on one play. The 49ers gave Baltimore plenty of help on their own.

Super Bowl prediction

I'd take Jim Harbaugh over John Harbaugh six days of the week.
I’d take Jim Harbaugh over John Harbaugh six days of the week.

The universe became a little more screwy when little brother Harbaugh opened up as a favorite. It’s like we all have been transported into the Gronkowski household.

Jim Harbaugh, little brother to John Harbaugh, leads the San Francisco 49ers into Super Bowl XLVII as 4-point favorites against big brother John’s Baltimore Ravens. We all get to witness the Brothers Harbaugh out grimace each other on the sideline as the 49ers and Ravens play out a title game that will be 10 times more about each team’s defense than about the guy who is under center. Or wearing a headset.

It’s the smash mouth defense of the twenty-teens, versus the old(er) smash mouth defense of the two thousands. It’ll be peachy.

I’m 8-2 in the playoffs against the line and straight up. But neither of my Super Bowl picks are still playing. Sadly, the Patriots and Seahawks have more time to enjoy Mardi Gras and warm weather than prepare for a championship. So with one more pick to make, a year in which I went 169-83-1 during the regular season and picked the 49ers to win in 17 of their 18 contests, I have to go with little brother Jim and his 49ers once again.

Why? Simply put, the 49ers are loaded. From a deep and dependable offensive line, a secondary that is arguably tops in the NFL (despite a porous playoff stretch), and a linebacker corps that is second to none. Then add in an offense that is hitting its stride at the right time, quarterbacked by the speedy and hard-throwing Colin Kaepernick, and position players that are top notch throughout. The Ravens don’t compare in that regard.

This is the 11th ranked offense versus the 16th ranked offense. The 3rd ranked defense versus the 17th ranked defense. The 4th best rushing team versus the 11th best rushing team. Only in the passing game do the Ravens take an edge. And even there, the pendulum could swing in the 49ers’ favor with Kaepernick at quarterback. We don’t know what kind of performance we’ll get.

The X-factor here is whether or not the 49ers will show the same inconsistency they’ve shown in the past month. In Week 15, they went on a tear to beat the New England Patriots. The next week, they were in the dumps after getting blown out by the Seattle Seahawks. In each of their two playoff games, they allowed early leads against the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, the latter of which went up 17-0 before they woke up.

That’s where this game is dangerous, where expectations and numbers and matchups don’t relate to the stun of the bright lights and the inspiration as well as emotive draw that takes place with more than 100 million people watching. That’s a place where the Ravens thrive, both as underdogs and as veterans of big games that have a new-found rallying cry in the soon-to-be retirement of Ray Lewis.

This is going to be close, but I don’t think it’s going to be as close as Baltimore (and maybe Patriots fans) want it to be.

The key matchup will be how the 49ers handle the Ravens’ passing game, orchestrated by the deft Joe Flacco. Torrey Smith is a deep threat and combined with Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, the Ravens have a layered passing attack that requires attention up and down the field. Nickel corner Carlos Rodgers has to be solid against Boldin while he’s in the slot and you’ll likely see 49ers LB Patrick Willis bodied up against Pitta at times while he keeps an eye on fullback Vonta Leach coming out of the backfield. Who wins in these one-on-one matchups should very well determine the dynamic and outcome of the game. I happen to think the 49ers are favored here.

Straight up winner: 49ers
Against the spread: 49ers
Prediction: 49ers 35, Ravens 27

AFC, NFC championship picks

The AFC championship will be won in the trenches.
The AFC championship will be won in the trenches.

Last week was bittersweet for me. I went a sterling 4-0 against the spread, but my Super Bowl pick, the Seattle Seahawks, lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the team’s NFC divisional bout.

It was a stellar game with the Falcons edging the Seahawks 30-28 on an inspiring game-winning drive by former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan certainly lived up to his nickname, Matty Ice, completing two passes with 31 seconds left in the game to get his Falcons down to the Seattle 31-yard line, setting up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal. Bryant was clutch, nailing the 49-yard attempt after getting a practice kick courtesy of Pete Carroll.

Atlanta won the game, Seattle covered the spread. It was a small victory and a huge loss that has me re-thinking the whole Super Bowl dynamic now that the final four is set to kick off on Sunday. I’ve been fairly good at picking games. I’m 7-1 against the spread and 7-1 picking straight up winners during the postseason, but this week feels different. There’s a lot of talent in Atlanta that I underestimated, namely the next-level worldly play of Ryan that the entire south has come to expect. But I have my doubts.

Meanwhile, we have two spreads that are virtually unbelievable. And that makes for this week’s picks to be a little more hairy than usual.

49ers (-5) at Falcons (+5) — When Jim Harbaugh installed Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, it was with the understanding that the second-year pro’s performance would come with high risks and high rewards. Kaepernick proved as much against the Green Bay Packers, throwing a first quarter interception before literally running away with the game. His playoff-record 181 yards rushing (in addition to the 263 yards passing) buried the Packers in a 45-31 win at Candlestick Park. The onus is on Harbaugh and Kaepernick to replicate the effort at the Georgia Dome, proving the option is viable in the NFL once again. The Falcons got a taste of the option last week, clamping down on the Seahawks’ powerful running game before eking out the win thanks to Ryan’s heroics. One key I noticed in the Falcons’ matchup with the Seahawks, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson failed to keep Atlanta on its toes by taking the option. He kept feeding Marshawn Lynch (16 carries, 46 yards) to no avail. I doubt the 49ers’ young quarterback, who has seemingly grown up overnight on the football field, would be so hesitant to take advantage of the opportunities a leaky Atlanta defense will provide. The Falcons surrendered 491 yards against the Seahawks and were the No. 24 total defense during the regular season. Ryan will be facing a 49ers team that has a significantly better defensive line with Justin Smith leading the way. It won’t be easy, but with the possibility of another breakout game from Kaepernick and an already shaky defense in Atlanta, I see this breaking for the 49ers. Matty Ice can only do so much.

Straight up winner: 49ers
By the line: Falcons

Ravens (+9.5) at Patriots (-9.5) — Joe Flacco is a much better quarterback when the pressure is on the line. But what’s more, he has enough moxie about him to throw the deep pass with regularity. And lucky for him, he has the talent to come up with the passes in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Add in a steady dose of Ray Rice, who ran for 131 yards on 30 carries in the AFC divisional round, and the Ravens are the most balanced team the Patriots have faced this season. Also taking into consideration the Ravens’ Week 3 win against the Patriots, a game in which Flacco completed eight passes of 20 yards or more, and fans in Baltimore are probably hyped at the possibility of taking down the Patriots again. The Ravens did it on the back of Rice in 2010 and by Flacco’s arm in September. But I don’t see that happening this time around. The Patriots have made the necessary adjustments on defense, particularly in tightening up the secondary, to fend off another upset. Devin McCourty has yet to take the bad angles we saw from Patrick Chung in Week 3 at safety. And Aqib Talib is a quality corner that can battle one-on-one with bigger receivers like Anquan Boldin. I fully expect to see McCourty playing over the top of Smith looking for those deep passes Flacco favors, and the game to be won in the trenches. The Patriots’ run defense (No. 9 overall in the regular season) is my small cause for comfort. But I do expect this one to be close.

Straight up winner: Patriots
By the line: Ravens


What’s it mean to be a fan of the game

The weird thing about covering the 49ers for my first time in the regular season, when everybody around you professionally and personally knows you’ve followed the team your whole life, is everybody expects it to be a big deal to you no matter if they win or lose.

I’m sorry but that’s just not the case for me. Win, lose, or draw, it’s all just work at the end of the day. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good game, so long as it is played well, appears fair, and ends at a decent time. Sunday’s 42-34 win for the 49ers over the New England Patriots definitely fits the bill. At least partly. But I certainly didn’t care which way the game went. I’m just glad I didn’t have to watch the Patriots pounce on another team after they demolished the Houston Texans. That was atrocious.

For me, as a football writer and a fan of the game, what’s most important is a high level of competition. Nothing is better than a good game with two worthy opponents going toe to toe. I’m not a fan of blowouts by any means. I’ll leave that to the diehards who paint their faces. The 49ers wouldn’t even be worth my time if they weren’t such an interesting and dynamic team. I’d treat them like the Oakland Raiders if that weren’t the case, out of sight and out of mind.

Instead, I think because I’ve written about the 49ers for more than 10 years now — in training camp, in columns for my previous newspaper, and on this site — my family and friends hold certain assumptions about whether I’m a fan or not. Even some colleagues may view me as a fan, although they would be wrong to do so. In fact, the conversation came up in the press box after Sunday night’s game at Gillette Stadium. My response is a simple one, and it may be hard for some to understand: I like good football. I’d be remiss if I didn’t find certain joy from watching the 49ers play well, or upset if they played poorly. But I feel exactly the same way about the the Patriots, the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars (who I have the unfortunate pleasure of watching this weekend) and every other NFL team.

For the Patriots, a team I’m paid to watch and write about, it’s tough to see them play bad games when their opponents are clearly not up to the task. I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of rooting for the underdog, just to see a good game. That’s not what I want. That’s not what I want to go home and talk about.

For the 49ers, a team that my family and friends follow closely, it’s all a regional thing. They are all my family and friends know, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m trying to do more with my football writing career than just following the 49ers, while at the same time remembering where I came from. So I pay attention while living 3,000 miles away and continue to write about a team that I have very little professional interest in.

It’s hard enough to do what I do, trying to be creative, provide insight, and stay on the ball with all of the storylines for the Patriots, and then be questioned about who I’m rooting for. All I can say is the last thing I want to do is be bored to death. If anything, that’s what being a fan of the game means to me. On Sunday, I got to catch one of the few good games in the NFL. I was happy about that.

I don’t know what other kind of fan I could be.

5 takeaways from Patriots-49ers

Danny Woodhead was the lone bright spot for the Patriots.
Danny Woodhead was the lone bright spot for the Patriots.

FOXBOROUGH — There’s the good, the bad, and the unacceptable from Sunday night’s 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots’ comeback attempt would have been a fantastic story had they completed the job. But they didn’t. And it will certainly hurt the team going ahead because of the playoff implications.

The Patriots went down 31-3 in the third quarter before reeling off four straight scoring drives to tie the game. Too bad we’re not writing about a sweet Tom Brady comeback.

Here’s some takeaways from the game:

1) The Patriots no longer control their destiny — The immediate aftermath of losing Sunday’s game is the unlikely chance for the Patriots to claim the No. 2 seed in the AFC and earn a playoff bye. The Denver Broncos (11-3) beat the Baltimore Ravens Sunday and are now positioned to finish the season behind the Houston Texans atop the conference. The Broncos have the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs left on the schedule. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Patriots would hold the No. 3 seed and face the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) before moving on to either playing Houston or Denver, both of which they’ve beaten. We’re sure both teams would love to see the Patriots again. Meanwhile, the 49ers clinched a playoff berth.

2) The turnovers are nothing to laugh about — Coming into Sunday’s game, the Patriots owned a league best +24 takeaways. They had four giveaways on Sunday and managed to come up with a fumble recovery. It was by far the worst day the Patriots had endured in the turnover department this season. They previously had two two-turnover games, against the Seattle Seahawks and the Buffalo Bills. There was no answer or excuses given for the way the ball was handled Sunday night and it’s not acceptable, especially given the fact that those four turnovers led to a 28-point deficit over the second and third quarters and what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. Lucky for the Patriots, they have Brady. Lucky indeed.

For all of my takeaways, visit the original post on’s Extra Points blog.

Week 12 NFL picks: Huge win for the 49ers

Nobody expected 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (16 of 23 passing for 243 yards, 2 touchdowns) to play as well as he did against the Chicago Bears Monday night. I certainly entertained the thought, but he was much better and more efficient than I imagined. That’s something you can only attribute to good coaching.

Now, there’s a quarterback controversy. Good luck with that, coach.

In other news, I imagine you can only attribute my success at picking games to my ability to forgive myself for favoring some teams over others. I went 13-1 last week, disregarding all the favorites that I had built up the previous weeks. This week, I’m doing a bit of the same. That means Philly is toast in my books. The Giants are on the rocks. The Saints are back where they should be. And the Patriot reign shouldn’t be questioned.

Here are my picks for this week:
Continue reading “Week 12 NFL picks: Huge win for the 49ers”

Still amazed at the 49ers-Rams tie, but for different reasons

Colin Kaepernick impressed with his ability to run from the quarterback spot.

I’m not sure whether or not I should be shocked the 49ers actually played poorly enough to tie with the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, or if I should be fascinated by Colin Kaepernick’s ability to lead the team on a possible game-winning drive.

However, my first thoughts on the 49ers-Rams game had nothing to do with its outcome. Midway through the fourth quarter, I was already contemplating whether or not Alex Smith’s injury was going to be the necessary nudge to relinquish him of his starting job at quarterback.

Yes, I’m harping on him again. It’s not that I don’t like Smith’s new-found role as “game manager,” or his skillset. No, it’s that I don’t trust that he won’t revert back to the terrible, crappy pocket passer I’ve known him to be since 2005.

So as I was watching this abomination of a game take place, with the 49ers defense nowhere remotely as elite as portrayed to be, ideas of Kaepernick finally taking over as QB No. 1 were tickling the frontal lobe of my brain. Kaepernick finished 11 of 17 passing for 117 yards and scrambled for 66 yards and a touchdown. He had trouble early, fumbling twice (Frank Gore saved him once) and was hesitant to pull the trigger, but his first extensive showing was still impressive. One of his endearing qualities is his ability to run. He looked every bit like the young quarterback he his, but with tons of potential. He took one of the worst sacks possible in overtime, keeping the 49ers out of position for a second field goal attempt to possibly win the game, and I’m sure that won’t find him much love from the 49ers fan base. But I don’t blame that entirely on him. There was a lot of pressure on that play coming from every direction. A veteran quarterback would’ve thrown it away, but as you know this was the kid’s first real rodeo.

Over the course of this week, we’ll all be able to monitor Alex Smith’s health and whether or not he can return for Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears. But if I were Jim Harbaugh, I would be thinking about pulling the trigger on Kaepernick. He brings a newness and freshness to the table that might be a jolt for the 49ers. At 6-2-1, and with such a de-emphasis on quarterback play already, it wouldn’t hurt.

Week 9 NFL picks: Temper your Alex Smith love lust

Alex Smith had a good game against the Arizona Cardinals. Not great, good.

Alex Smith was 18 of 19 passing on Monday night, an NFL record 94.73 percent passer completion rate for a minimum of 15 passes.

Trust me when I say that it wasn’t that impressive. He got away with what should have been an interception on the sidelines on a pass to Delanie Walker and he was dinking and dunking the whole night, checking down to players in the flats and toward the sidelines rather than making poor decisions down field as he did against the New York Giants.

Now with that said, he did exactly what I would want him to do. It’s obvious his vision is limited and his throws need to be regulated so as not to hurt his team with an abundance of turnovers. His one aggressive throw, to Michael Crabtree over Patrick Peterson in the end zone, was also necessary. A good mix of aggressiveness and caution out of Smith landed him in the record books Monday night. And while he may be lauded for doing something extraordinary, we all know he just took what the Arizona Cardinals gave him. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The San Francisco 49ers win last night topped my week with another stellar performance picking games, going 9-5. I’m now 74-41 on the season. As I said before, this is too easy and I will likely be switching back to picking games against the spread next year.

Here are this week’s picks:
Continue reading “Week 9 NFL picks: Temper your Alex Smith love lust”